On Cuba (August 2008)

I’ve just come back from backpacking around Cuba. As the washing machine spins three weeks of dirt from my clothes, I thought I’d write down my impressions before they fall away too.

It’s a beautiful Caribbean island with lush green mountain ranges and beaches of fine sand and clear warm turquoise seas. This time of year, it is hot every day until around five or six, when you have the daily electrical storm for two or three hours.

The people, too, are incredibly warm, happily revealing details about their lives in a first conversation which might take years to unlock from a Briton. One man in whose house Irenea and I stayed sat with us after dinner and, after showing us how he could roll a perfect cigar from tobacco leaves without glue, talked happily about petrol prices (about 50p a litre since Cuba’s deal with Venezuela), new economic reforms (to give fruit growers an incentive to grow more than the quota they must sell to the state, they are now allowed to sell any surplus they have for personal profit) and the horrors of having a menopausal wife (“she recoils even just when I touch her!”).

Many people also showed us so much generosity that it was humbling. At one point, we wanted to camp on a beach. We were staying in a tiny poor rural village, at the house of a friend of friend of a friend, who, without even really knowing us, cooked us an extravagant and delicious dinner and insisted we sleep in their own bedroom. On the morning of our journey to the beach, they diligently packed our stuff into two bags, tied them onto their horse, and had their twelve year-old son Julio lead us the hour and a half journey through the crab-filled woodland to the beach, where he helped us put up the tent, light a fire, and showed us how to keep the water bottles cool by burying them in the sand. The beach was completely deserted apart from crabs and the occasional poor fisherman going out in small wooden boats. One gave us some of his lunch of freshly caught and fried fish, and another – despite probably being the poorest person we met in the country – gave us special wood to burn to keep mosquitos away overnight, petrol to get the fire going, and came back in the morning to check we were ok and wave us off. Overnight, we watched an electrical storm light up the beach in spooky flashes of silvery light.

As we travelled, we wondered how much peoples’ generosity is a by-product of the political system. Since its revolution in January 1959, Cuba has been a socialist country. It was on the Soviet side in the Cold War, and from 1970 to the early nineties had a Soviet-style communist economy. I’d never been to a communist country before, and was intrigued to see its effects.

“From now on,” announced revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in the year of the revolution, “the children of the peasants will have schools, sports facilities, and medical attention.” And so they do. Two years after the revolution, he launched one of the boldest social campaigns I have ever heard of. The goal was quite simple: to teach everybody in the country to read, in one year. The regime organised for 100,000 young teachers, many of them teenagers, to travel across the country teaching the illiterate 40% of the population, many of them poor peasants in the remote countryside. It was a smashing success. The early years of the revolution also saw the construction of 3,000 new schools, the recruitment and training of 7,000 new teachers, and 300,000 new pupils in school. Today, a World Bank report is able to say that “in many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.” Education in Cuba is badly politicised, but it is world-class and free.

Healthcare in Cuba was good before the revolution – with more doctors per head than Britain, France, Holland or Japan – but now it is excellent, free, and available in the remotest parts of the countryside. Even in the tiny countryside village we visited there is a clinic, and all over the country, you see people going around with slings, bandages, eye-patches, and wheelchairs, as if eager to show off the generosity of their country’s healthcare system. And it has worked. The woman of the family we stayed with in Havana had needed four rounds of chemotherapy to beat her cancer, and knew that she might not have survived if she had lived in another Latin American country. According to CIA figures, a Cuban’s life expectancy – 77 – is close to the OECD average for rich countries, and its infant mortality rate (5.93 babies dying per 1,000 born) is better than the US’. Not only that, but Cuba has built schools in the countryside so that medical students from other Latin American countries can train in Cuba, completely free. We stayed over at one with Paulo and Jessica, some Ecuadorian friends studying there. Paulo explained to me that the schools were built in such remote places so that if the US ever attacked the country, they could be used as refugee hideouts.

Apart from that, the revolution has seen the longest period of stability and racial harmony in Cuba’s history, hunger and extreme poverty have been eliminated, crime is low, the streets are safe, and there is a real sense of community and cooperation. Cuba has produced some award-winning state-subsidised movies, great music, and has more Olympic gold medals per head of the population than any other country in the world. As our cigar-rolling friend mused, “some countries in the world are richer than Cuba, some are poorer, but here, life is good.”

But he wouldn’t know. One of the aspects which I found disturbing about the Cuban system is that the government controls all the information which reaches the population. There are only state newspapers, state TV; the state vets books and restricts the internet. After a while, this made me feel sick. You simply can’t get good information. Catching sight of a man holding a pile of copies of ‘The Times’ inside the British Embassy felt like catching a tantalising glimpse of water in a desert. Landing in Europe and seeing a newsstand heaving with newspapers and magazines, I experienced the novel sensation of wanting to hug it. Even the slightly cartoony music to the nightly news programme on state TV took on a sinisterly patronising quality after a while – “bringing you all the news that the government doesn’t mind you knowing” it seemed to say. (If you’re interested, it’s here).

I soon found myself unable to trust anything anyone told me which was outside of their own personal experience, because however intelligent and well-intentioned they were, the only information they can get is politically selected. As a Cuban author or scholar, you know that anything you might want to write that is not in the spirit of the revolution won’t be published, so there is no freedom of speech, no free competition of ideas, no freedom to express anything which might encourage people to think independently. Natural human curiosity stays within the bounds of what the state lets you know exists. After browsing the second hand book stalls on Havana’s beautiful old square and finding them full of the same-old material which you find everywhere else in Cuba – Castro’s speeches, the history of the revolution, biographies of Che Guevara, the history of the CIA’s secret war against Cuba, battered copies of the Soviet Constitution and the occasional book on some non-offensive topic such as the Roman Empire or European Renaissance Art – there was nothing to do but sit down and continue reading the history of Cuba I’d bought from London, and feel bloody lucky to come from somewhere which allowed its historians to write equally about Castro’s mistakes as well as his successes.

The state also owns almost every business and pays every worker, badly. One guy told me how he worked a seventy hour week in one of the state bakeries for the equivalent of $8 a month, most of which went straight back to the state in utility bills and food costs. Since Cuba has done a deal with Venezuela exchanging doctors for oil, he explained, Cuban medical care has got worse because so many doctors abscond. They don’t want to come back and carry on earning $15 a month.

Although it’s starting to change now, earning a personal profit has been illegal for the last forty years. Despite this, I got the feeling that there was incredible human potential in Cuba, and a natural, unselfish, workaday desire to just get on and make some money. You see little hints of aspiration everywhere. Cycling through the countryside, a man popped up from under a roadside bush and shouted ‘Cigars!’ at us, in the hope that we might stop and buy. In 1996, the government tentatively allowed people to open private cafes. As my straight-faced history book put it, “these proved so successful that Castro almost immediately ordered them to be closed.” These days, you can own a cafe, as long as it is family-run and only has twelve tables. A communist government, it seems, is in a uniquely bad position to see that there are many things the market does better than the state, and the Cuban people are the worse off for it.

State products, meanwhile, are sometimes comically uniform. Walking past some girls in the street carrying slices of cake, we noticed it looked identical to the other cake we had seen being sold in the city and around the country. And then we realised why: it was state-cake.

Communist inefficiencies are met with Caribbean languor. Our cigar-rolling friend told us breezily that he hadn’t been able to do his day job as a taxi driver for a year because his car had broken down, and he was still waiting for the state to repair it.

Because there are no private companies, there are no adverts, no billboards, no posters, no branding, and no promotions. And at first it’s quite refreshing. Instead, though, there’s propaganda, on posters, painted on walls, on TV, or on little improvised cardboard signs, advertising the only brand in the country – the revolution. Most of it looks quite jolly and features slogans which are quite inspiring at face value, such as “Never lie and be good – that’s the ethics of the revolution;” “’We will make the fairest socialism in the world’ – Fidel;” or “Sport – the right of the people.” But after a while, the appeal of the sentiments pales compared to the ugliness of their overbearing ubiquity; no alternative sentiments are available, anywhere.

The propaganda creates a sense that the state is everywhere. But for ordinary Cubans, the state really is everywhere. People are afraid. They feel watched, and they’re normally right. Trying to get a cheap taxi to another town, we have to slink down the street unobtrusively so that our driver isn’t seen by a policeman letting tourists get into a car which has no air conditioning – the state doesn’t allow it. Trying to get a cycle-taxi into central Havana from the outskirts, the petrified driver urges us please not to speak English – he’ll be in trouble if he’s found driving tourists in this part of town – the state doesn’t allow that, either. Paying for things is normally done furtively round dark corners so as not to arouse suspicion.

On every block in every town there is a base for the ‘Committee for the Defence of the Revolution.’ This is normally a regular family of party loyalists whose job it is to organise stuff like vaccinations, recycling initiatives, parties, and a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme. But their main task is to keep notes on anyone in the block who doesn’t show enough enthusiasm for the regime, and report them to the authorities if need be. Many Cuban houses have an open-backed section where families eat and talk. I rarely got the feeling that anyone talking politics over a meal at home felt at liberty to speak their mind. (The only exception to this was the dedicated party member who kindly put us up for a few nights and made us a fantastic supper. Asked how Cuba would deal with a US invasion, she unflinchingly replied, “the people would annihilate them.” This, it turns out, is also official government policy. In 1983 when the Soviets told Cuba that they couldn’t afford to guarantee its military security any more, the regime adopted a new defence policy of ‘a people’s war’. In other words: we all fight like hell). Most people, though, phrase any criticism delicately with a well-practised ease. “Private property is something relative in Cuba,” said our hosts in Havana. They were talking about their state-owned house.

Cuba is a one-party democracy. That literally means that people can vote for absolutely any citizen at all, but only to represent their opinions to the regime. Asked about being a dictator (in the film ‘Comandante’), Castro protested that he had always tried to get his way by persuasion. This is true. But it nicely misses the point that real democracy normally prevents its leaders getting what they want any other way. Cuba is second only to China for the number of journalists it holds in prison, and still occasionally uses the death penalty. I doubt that anyone has heard of the human rights to free association, assembly, privacy and movement, to know that they are denied them. It seems telling that Castro has developed the long-winded air of a man who hasn’t been interrupted very often in the last fifty years.

The thing I found most saddening, though, was that on top of all this, Cubans can’t leave. They may temporarily visit a foreign country if they have a letter of invitation – my baker friend talked to me wistfully of his time in Manchester – but he knew that the authorities rarely let people leave for good.

He also told me how the way Cuba is developing now brings new inequalities to the country. Essentially, Cuba used to rely on selling sugar to the USSR. The Soviet Union was literally its sugar daddy – a richer, older, dowdier communist regime hooking up with a poorer, younger, more glamorous one – subsidising the occasional indulgence such as international guerrilla expeditions, and in return sharing some of the early left-wing adulation in which the revolution basked. Anyway, this reliance on sugar alone meant that the Cuban economic planners didn’t have to worry too much about the inequalities which might arise from one industry growing faster than another.

Since 1995, though, Cuba’s main source of income has been tourism. Tourism has been good for Cuba; it has brought in money that the country needs. But the country needs to diversify. Its over-reliance on tourism is making it more unequal. For example, to get the most out of tourists, the government has instituted two currencies, an expensive one in which to charge tourists and a cheap one in which to pay Cubans. This has created two separate economies working side-by-side. This stops the wealth that the tourist industry generates from spreading to people who don’t work in it. My baker-friend’s government wage could not begin to pay for a meal at most cafés in his town, because they are priced in tourist pesos, as are more and more goods. The effect is that most people can’t afford most things, and forty-nine years after a revolution which took power to combat excessive inequalities, they are opening up again. Teenagers are beginning to ask why they should study for their medical exams when they could earn so much more in tourism. Sadly, to be a tourist in Cuba is to further prise apart the gap between the rich and the poor.

Another result of having two currencies is the growing apartheid between Cubans and tourists. You want to get some food? Ah, you’ll need the other copy of the menu, the one with the tourist prices. You want to catch a bus. Well, step this way – to the section of the bus station with aircon, a TV and a security guard. You want to rent a car? Well, Cubans may be driving either Soviet Ladas or reconfigured pre-1959 classics, but for you, something right up to date. The effect is hierarchical and ugly.

Perhaps there is a sorry metaphor here between the development of the revolution and that of its most famous icon, the photo of Che Guevara from 1960. It was once an icon of anti-imperialist aspiration and resistance, held up by successive generations of protestors against Vietnam, capitalism, and much else. But now you can get Che posters, t-shirts, hats, key-rings, fridge magnets, glasses cases, cigarette lighters… even a Che air freshener. It’s almost as if Che’s face is now an icon of the commodification of the ideals for which he fought.

But to an extent, hasn’t the same thing happened to his revolution itself? Once young, passionate, idealistic and idealised, it stood against imperialism, injustice, poverty, and corruption. Now, though, it gets by on money from tourists like me, who want to pay to sit on the beach and see the communism, many seeing it as a kind of ideological themepark, a communist Disneyland. Cuba’s over-reliance on tourism is eroding the ideals for which the regime came to power.

My overall impression was of a regime whose achievements were in the distant past and which had long since been doing the people more harm than good. Many of the revolution’s ideals were admirable. But in the end, a political regime should be judged on the quality of the daily life it delivers before the nobility of its ideals; after all, daily life is where most people live, most of the time. Che didn’t die for endless forms in triplicate. He didn’t die so that every time a household appliance broke you had to wait for the National Ministry for Fixing Household Goods to fix it. Whatever good it has done for Cuba, if the revolution’s legacy includes inescapable low pay, repression of initiative, and fear of speaking your mind in case your neighbour’s listening, we shouldn’t be too misty-eyed to condemn it.

What is especially sad about Cuba is that by improving Cuba’s education, health and infrastructure so well, the regime has given perhaps the best opportunity in the continent for people to fulfil their individual economic potential, if they want to. But it has then gone on to crush almost every suggestion of enterprise, because it doesn’t believe in individual economic potential. And all the while persuading them that it is the best political system going. I wanted to shake the country by the scruff of the neck and tell it ‘you have good education, you have great healthcare, and nobody lacks for food or shelter. The regime has told you that because these were political ends in the past, they are all the ends you will ever need. It’s a lie! They’re also means, preconditions for aspiration and enterprise! You can do better! Unchain the internet, put the education to good use with a free press, turn every block’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution into a polling station! And let a new generation take power, one brought up unsatisfied with the political achievements of yesterday, and which aspires to solve the political problems of today.’